Acknowledging that they no longer controlled the towns, the rebels loyal to the former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize, said they had been defeated by virtue of the involvement of the MLC fighters. "We affirm that it is [Jean-Pierre] Bemba's [MLC] fighters, who have been fighting us on the ground since 13 February, together with 400 to 500 [Rwandan Hutu extremist] Interahamwe militiamen and former Rwandan soldiers," Parfait Mbaye, a rebel spokesman, said.
Bozoum (384 km northwest of the CAR capital, Bangui) and Sibut (185 km northeast of Bangui) are strategic towns. The capture of Bozoum opens the way to Bossangoa (305 km northwest of Bangui), Bozize's birthplace and site of the rebels' headquarters. It is also 100 km from Bouar, which straddles the main road linking the capital, Bangui, to Cameroon, and which also has the country's second-largest military garrison. That road and the traffic using it had been under constant rebel threat. Sibut is in the heart of the country's agricultural region, and its isolation from Bangui has led to steep increases in the prices of consumer goods.
After their defeat in Bangui in November 2002 after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow President Ange-Felix Patasse's government, the rebels retreated to positions in the northwest and the centre of the country.
Analysts perceive the government's recent victories as the result of its effort to drive the rebels out of the country before the scheduled national dialogue is held in March.
During a news conference broadcast on 14 February by the UN-sponsored Radio Ndeke Luka, the minister of state for communications, Gabriel Jean Edouard Koyambounou, said national territorial integrity must be recovered before the dialogue could take place. "We have to go to the dialogue with all our provinces under our control," he stressed.
These new developments have taken place as MLC fighters began their pull-out on 15 February. So far, neither the CAR military nor administrative authorities have confirmed the recapture of the two towns.
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: Irin@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003